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Max Unger front and center
HONOLULU – He is quick, physically as well as mentally. He is deceptively strong, especially once he gets his hands on you. He definitely deserves to be here.
He? That would be Max Unger, the Seahawks’ Pro Bowl center. And these words of praise came from two players Unger went up against during his team’s 11-5 regular season that was followed by the Seahawks’ first road playoff victory since 1983 – Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Randy Starks and Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams, members of this season’s AFC Pro Bowl squad.
All three practiced in the rain on Thursday as the NFC and AFC teams that will be play in Sunday’s Pro Bowl game at Aloha Stadium worked out at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.
Unger is used to being a center who demands attention on the field, but being the center of attention of the field does not come as easily for him.
“It’s good,” the first-time Pro Bowler said with a laugh once the NFC practice was over and also after signing autographs for some of the estimated 1,500 fans who packed one side of the practice field.
“It’s a little more special for me, being from Hawaii. It’s pretty cool, man. I hope they keep the game here. It’s a pretty special environment.”
And Unger has become the Big Man from the Big Island this week.
He was, after all, born and raised in Kailua-Kona. And he has been given a reception royal enough that it would be fitting for Duke Kahanamoku. Splashed across the sports page of the Honolulu Star Advertiser on Thursday was a huge photo of Unger – shades on, hat turned backwards – from Wednesday’s practice. The boldfaced caps headline over the accompanying story: “Unger Games.”
“Pretty ridiculous, huh? This is getting out of hand,” Unger said as he was making his way from the buses that had delivered the NFC squad from the Ihilani Resort and Spa to the practice field adjacent to the runway that serves Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.
Hey, if you can’t salute your own who can you salute? And Hawaii does have a tradition of sending centers to the NFL. In addition to Unger, Dominic Raiola of the Detroit Lions and Samson Satele of the Indianapolis Colts are Island Boys. Before them, there was Bern Brostek, the former University of Washington and Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams center who was Unger’s coach at Hawaii Preparatory Academy; Olin Kreutz, another ex-Husky who became a six-time Pro Bowl center for the Chicago Bears; and Jesse Sapolu, who played in two Pro Bowls and four Super Bowls for the San Francisco 49ers.
And Unger is quick to credit the role Brostek played in getting him ready first for life at the University of Oregon and then with the Seahawks, who selected Unger in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft.
“Bern is an awesome guy who was basically teaching NFL football to high school kids and I wouldn’t be here without him,” Unger said.
And Unger wouldn’t be here – at his first Pro Bowl, and also an All-Pro selection this season – if he hadn’t been one of Brostek’s honor graduates.
Just ask Starks, who had two tackles in the Dolphins’ victory over the Seahawks in November.
“Max is a good player,” Starks said. “He’s quick and very smart. He knows how to put his line in the right positions to make plays.”
Just as Williams, who had one tackle in the Bills’ December loss to the Seahawks in Toronto.
“Max is a good player who fits well into the great scheme they have there just because of what he does,” Williams said. “He’s got good quickness and strength. He can get on guys and kind of latch onto to them and not let go. So he’s a good player who has gotten everything he deserves.”
And deserved everything he has gotten? “Of course,” Starks said. “Everybody who is here deserves to be here. Just for you to make it here, you have to be doing something right. So Max obviously has.”
Now that Unger has brought his NFL career closer to home, he is paying the price.
“I got a pile of tickets,” he said. “I think I bought about 60, and there will be even more than that coming to the game.
“This being the first time I’ve made the Pro Bowl, it’s a pretty big deal.”
And that has been obvious, not only for Unger’s family but the others who also are basking in his success.